Ever gone to a grocery store in search of the healthiest bread and been overwhelmed with the sea of claims staring back at you?
“Made with whole grains”
“Enriched with vitamins”
“No artificial ingredients!”
“100 whole wheat”
“Quinoa, chia, flax bread!”
How is someone supposed to know which one is truly ‘healthy bread’ or not? Or is all bread just bad for you, and should you be avoiding it entirely? Will you have to miss out on the joy of eating bread and butter, or dipping your toast in sunny side up eggs in the morning? The answers to all these questions lay ahead, but first, let’s take a brief look at what bread really is:
Healthy Bread 101: Two Crucial Things To Look For
The first crucial ingredient to making bread is a whole grain. As you can see in the image on the right, each grain consists of three main parts:
- Endosperm: contains starchy carbohydrates, proteins, and small amounts of vitamins and minerals
- Germ: contains B vitamins, protein, minerals, healthy fats
- Bran: contains antioxidants, B vitamins, fibre
In an ideal world, we would get all three of those components in our loaf of bread. The reality? Most bread goes through a process of refinement in a factory which removes the bran and the germ. Yep, all that fibre, good fats and additional vitamins are gone down the drain. Instead, you’re just left with the endosperm, which is mostly carbohydrates and has little nutritional value. Aside from the fact that you’re missing out on nutrients, the issue with refined bread is that without as much protein, fat or fibre to offset the carbohydrates, refined bread will convert into glucose quickly and spike blood sugar levels! That means more cravings, weight gain, and an energy crash.
By this point you might be thinking, “wait a minute, why would anyone do that to bread in the first place? Why remove all the good stuff?” The answer: by removing fragile fats and antioxidants from the equation, manufacturers can have a product with longer shelf life, which means less waste, and more profit! Plus, if someone made you choose between a sandwich made with fluffy white bread or thin, dense rye bread, what would you choose? Exactly.
So that was the first ingredient, but what are the other ingredients? Making bread isn’t that complicated, so you want to look for a minimal list of ingredients like water, yeast, salt, along with the flour.
Here’s what’s really in your ‘healthy bread’
Now that you know your bread should contain whole grains and the ingredients listed above, let’s use an example of a popular brand of bread: Dempster’s. Let’s say you come across this bread on the right in the grocery store and you try to assess it based on the criterion above: must be whole grain, and have minimal ingredients.
Step 1: Is it a whole grain?
At a first glance, you might see this and think that 100% whole wheat is a good choice. Yep, better than white bread. But according to the Health Canada, you can state that bread is whole wheat even though it “may have much of the germ removed“. Basically, according to the law you are allowed to mislead consumers! *smacks forehead*
Tip: avoid 100% whole wheat, and opt for 100% whole grain. Don’t fall for “made with whole grains”, as it could only be 2% of the entire loaf of bread.
Step 2: Does it have a minimal amount of ingredients?
Whole grain whole wheat flour including the germ, water, glucose-fructose / sugar, yeast*, vegetable oil (canola or soybean), wheat gluten, salt, vinegar, acetylated tartaric acid esters of mono and diglycerides, calcium propionate, sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate, sorbic acid, monoglycerides.
Here are the ingredients that trouble me:
- Glucose/fructose: why is there added sugar in my bread?
- Vegetable oil: these are fake, refined oils that undergo a process that includes bleaching, exposure to chemicals like hexane, and cause inflammation in the body. You can learn more here and here.
- Wheat gluten: why is additional gluten being added in when more and more people are being diagnosed with gluten sensitivity? Most likely to make the bread fluffier and chewier.
- Calcium propionate: research has shown that this can cause behavioural changes and disturbances in children if eaten on a regular basis (and what kid isn’t eating sandwiches everyday for lunch?)
The remaining additives appear to be safe, but I would much prefer to eat bread that didn’t include unnecessary additives if their only purpose is to increase shelf life. The final verdict on this bread? You guessed it, I wouldn’t buy it.
What About Gluten?
Ah yes, the whole gluten situation. I think this blog post by Dr. Frank Lipman provides a fantastic overview of why it makes sense to let go of gluten, but if I had to sum it up I would say this: while it is not mandatory unless you have gluten sensitivity, celiac disease or another chronic condition such a Crohn’s, simply try it out for yourself and see how you feel. Most clients I have worked with (myself included) find that they feel better when there is no gluten in their diet, or if it makes up a much smaller part of their diet overall.
Here are some reasons why you might feel better:
- Gluten is a sticky protein, which can blocks the intestinal wall’s ability to efficiently absorb nutrients, which can lead to feelings of brain fog and fatigue.
- Gluten causes inflammation and can lead to a leaky gut, as well as increase the risk for autoimmune disease
- Modern wheat is not what it used to be. Cardiologist Dr. William David argues that too much blame is put on gluten, but in fact it is the industrialization of wheat that has altered certain proteins in wheat that make us more susceptible to allergies and sensitivities.
- Grains contain lectins, a type of protein that can reduce nutrient absorption and cause indigestion, bloating, gas and cramps. Minimizing any type of grain, or opting for a sprouted version, can help you find some relief.
Guidelines For Selecting The Healthiest Bread
Still with me? Awesome. Let’s recap:
- Purchase 100% whole-grain bread to ensure you’re getting all the nutrients
- Is an option other than wheat available? Spelt? Rye?
- Even better, is there a gluten-free or grain-free option available? Flax? Chia?
- Look for a bread with minimal ingredients, that doesn’t contain vegetable oils, added sugar and a long list of additives
- Make sure you apply this logic to all types of bread, even if they are ‘gluten-free’, ‘organic’ or ‘natural’
- Opt for sprouted, if available
- Opt for organic, if available
- Make your own bread at home
Best whole grain bread brands:
- Silver Hills (gluten-free)
- Little Stream (gluten-free)
- The Essential Baking Company (gluten-free)
And here are some healthy bread recipes:
- Coconut Flour Bread
- Grain-free Almond Bread
- Paleo Wheat Bread
+ this awesome list of 25 grain-free bread recipes
I hope these guidelines have been helpful. If you have any more questions, I’d be happy to answer them in the comments section below!